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Jefferson the Musician: Works From His Personal Library

Thomas Jefferson's music catalog of 1783

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson was a Virginia gentleman, bonafide polymath, brilliant thinker, and, a musician of distinction.

Rob Turner, flute, and Kevin Bushee, violin, released a CD in 1990 on the PDI label entitled Music in the Age of Jefferson, including works for violin by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

According to 19th century biographer James Parton, Jefferson had considerable skill when it came to violin, and may have played these melodies himself.

In 1783 Jefferson set out to catalog his entire collection of books. The catalog was organized into three large sections: History, Philosophy, and Fine Arts. The music books were divided into theoretical, vocal, and instrumental categories. One entry in the "instrumental" category bears the minutely descriptive label, "Handel's 60 overtures from all his Operas and Oratorios, 8 parts." Les Talens Lyriques performs the overture to the opera "Scipione" by Handel on their CD release of the same name.

Aside from overtures, Jefferson's collection of instrumental works was predominantly made up of small-scale chamber music, most of which could be performed by just two people. He often played chamber works such as Arcangelo Corelli's sonata no. 7 in D minor, recorded by another duo, Andrew Manze and Richard Egarr, in 2003 on the Harmonia Mundi release Violin Sonatas, op. 5.

Vocal music also played an important part in Thomas Jefferson's collection, including operas, oratorios, and over two dozen books of songs. Tenor John Mark Ainsley recorded a few of the songs from Henry Purcell's two-volume "Harmonia Sacra" on the Hyperion recording entitled Fairest work of happy Nature.

The year after Jefferson compiled his catalog, he moved to Paris as a diplomat appointed by Congress, where he attended, among many things,  opera performances. We know that he was already well-acquainted with opera as no less than eight appear in his catalog. One of these, "Artaxerxes," by Thomas Arne, was recorded by the Parley of Instruments in 1996 and released by Hyperion records.

There is little question about the identity of some of the songs carefully labeled in Jefferson's collection, except in less specific circumstances, such as the entry "Dibdin's songs." We can safely assume he is referring to Charles Dibdin, an English composer well-known in Jefferson's day. Julianne Baird performs songs by Dibdin on the CD release recorded in 1996 entitled Jane's Hand.

The music in Jefferson's catalog of 1783 is only a small part of the library, which contained 2,640 books. In 2000, the catalog was digitized by the Massachusetts Historical Society and can be found online at

New release

Our new release this week features the music of Antonio Vivaldi and the group La Serenissima, led by violinist and director, Adrian Chandler. Entitled Music for the Chapel of the Pietà, the recording offers some of Vivaldi's lesser known pieces.

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